wealth definition

Opinion | Explaining the American gentry


This article is the first part of a two-part series regarding the role of the aristocracy in modern American life.

Throughout my life, I’ve seen wealth beyond imagination around me. 

When I was a toddler in New York City, I attended daycare at the Fed Kids Child Care Center, whose location also hosts the New York branch of the FBI and other government programs. 

In my 12 years in South Florida, while my household rose the ranks of American wealth, I always felt inferior to my peers because I lived in a one-story house while my friends lived in oceanside mansions or exclusive country clubs. 

While I do not know many wealthy students personally at Northwestern, I know based on viral stories and public percentages of students paying full tuition, elite children roam the same grounds I do.

I feel my experience rubbing shoulders with wealth makes me qualified, in some small part, to dissect a very particular kind of American wealth. I write this article inspired by historian Patrick Wyman’s article “American Gentry” in The Atlantic, and as such, I will use the term “American gentry.”

Wyman defines the American gentry as those who make vast amounts of profit from their ownership of land and assets and utilize this private ownership for their gains. Rare examples like the Lakefill notwithstanding (where the University literally created valuable land), the land is a fundamentally scarce resource and land ownership comes at a premium in all countries. Examples of this gentry class include restaurant owners, homeowners and people who own agricultural property. Because of the broad definition of the American gentry, there are infinite examples here.

In contrast to the professional working class, the American gentry gains wealth by accumulating their assets. For example, as people immigrate to South Florida, homeowners and condo owners gain wealth because the demand for housing increases while the supply of existing land stays the same. In the same vein, using a restaurant as an example, as more people want to live in South Florida, the gentry gets rich from owning the land and the booming businesses that become more attractive under an urbanizing world.

I find the now-public role of the American gentry in college football fascinating via the name, image and likeness legislation passed in July 2021. Immediately, we saw car dealerships and restaurants jump at the chance to sponsor these athletes, such as Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler with Fowler Automotive Group and Wright’s Barbecue in Northwest Arkansas funding Arkansas offensive linemen. Before summer 2021, these gentry businesses still made these deals to benefit their favorite college football team, just under the table, as the college football journalist Steven Godfrey reported in his “bag men” article and videos. The gentry have an outsized influence in these NIL deals because of their desire to exert power in their region.

Yes, in my time in South Florida, I met many working-class rich people, doctors and lawyers especially. And they are rich because of their labor. I believe there are some fundamental differences between this kind of wealth and the gentry because the gentry do not work for their paychecks. Whether the land is owned by private individuals or by the government, in some cases, is simply a question about who is lucky. There are a lot of clear adverse outcomes that come from a powerful gentry in place of a powerful state or civic government. In the next installment of this series, I will delve deeper into these effects and what can be done to counteract them.

Sterling Ortiz is a SESP fourth-year. You can contact him at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.


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